Q I have been told that my ancestors were crofters in the north of Scotland in the 19th century prior to coming to Canada. Are there any records of crofters that might help me substantiate this family story?
B Eldridge (by e-mail)
A Crofters are a class of agricultural tenant mostly associated with the Highlands and Islands. There are a number of places you can look if you are searching for records of particular crofting ancestors, including the surviving records of the landed estate on which they worked, owned or rented property. Locating surviving estate records for a particular locality is largely a matter of finding out the name of the landowner of the day and then checking the indexes and catalogues in different archives to see if any of his family's records survive. You may already know the name of the landowner, in which case you should consult the National Register of Archives maintained by The National Archives: Historical Manuscripts Commission and the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) online catalogue. You should also consult the National Archives of Scotland (NAS)'s electronic catalogue as the NAS also holds a large number of estate records as part of their Gifts and Deposits series (NAS ref GD).
If you do not know the identity of the landowner(s) in the particular area, there are several publications which can help. These publications, as well as others, should be available through a good library and include: A Directory of Landownership in Scotland c 1770, edited by Loretta R Timperley; the numerous volumes of the Statistical Account of Scotland, compiled by the ministers of the Church of Scotland; and Who owns Scotland? A Study in Land Ownership, by John McEwen.
If you find the records of the relevant landowning family, it is the estate records which you should be particularly interested in. Look for rentals (rent rolls), the records of leases, known as tacks, and the miscellaneous records kept by the factor, the owner's estate manager and agent.
If your ancestors were crofters in the later 19th century you may also find information about them in the files of the Scottish Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, held by the NAS. In particular the records of the Royal Commission on the Highlands and Islands, 1883, are an important source of information about crofters at this time. Besides letters and other papers, the records of the Commission (NAS ref: AF50) include returns by the owners of estates in the Highlands. Of particular interest should be the records in AF50/7/1-19, which provide the names of each crofter on each estate and the rent, acreage and stock of his croft.
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